Black culture is right “under our nose”


Obsidian Arts, located at 734 E. Lake Street in Minneapolis, hosted two panel discussions in association with a chilling new art experience — the “Soul on Ice” art exhibit that ran from February 23, 2008 to March 23, 2008. Last Saturday’s discussion focused on the evolution and preservation of Black culture.

The Soul on Ice exhibit title was inspired by author and activist Eldridge Clever. His book Soul on Ice reflects on the turbulent times of the Civil Rights Movement, which influenced a culture consciousness. Obsidian Arts wanted attendees to gain a visual understanding of the value and depth of Black culture as seen through the creations of these Minnesota artists.

The first discussion, held March 8, was geared towards ethical contracts, grants and fellowships for artists. The second and final discussion was held last Saturday, March 22. Curator Pat Phillips, founder of Obsidian Arts and T.A.W.U. (The Artist Within Us) Artist Group, moderated the panel discussion about the value of Black culture.

Featured panelists included Wesley McGee, researcher and historian; Ezra Hyland, educator and host of Voices of the African American Community on KMOJ radio; and Mahmoud El-Kati, educator, author, lecturer and expert commentator on the African American experience. The following issues were discussed: raising culture consciousness, the future of culture through our children, and cultural leadership.

In an MSR conversation with Mahmoud El-Kati prior to the panel discussion, he shared his thoughts concerning the value of Black or African American culture:

“Before getting to the question of Black culture, one must first define culture,” said El-Kati. His frame of reference is through modern anthropology. He continued by saying that many people confuse race with culture. Race implies something biological that sometimes mistakenly is translated into something stereotypical — for example, the myth that people can tell your values by your race.

Unlike being born Black or White, culture is a learned behavior, El-Kati pointed out. Therefore, it is universal, and all human creatures are products of culture. Culture is what people create and do.

El-Kati said that one of the most magnificent things about Black culture is that it is an achieving culture. He shared a quote from Fredrick Douglass: “You judge not a man by the height he reaches, but by the depths from which he comes.” In other words, how you start is just as significant as how you finish.

During the panel discussion, in a room packed with about 35 to 40 people, Ezra Hyland stated that in African American society, when we talk about culture, we talk about artifacts. We confuse artifacts with structure.

For example, just because I go to a Chinese restaurant and eat with chopsticks, that does not make me Chinese. It just means that I am using an artifact of their culture. He also said that Black and White people share common ground as it relates to devaluing Black culture in America.

The question of how we increase culture consciousness was posed to the panel. El-Kati responded by saying that people create culture out of their consciousness. Much of what he is referring to is found in the dramatic changes among Black people during the 1960s, for example.

We went from “colored” to “Negro” and “Negro” to “Black,” later embracing the current classification of “African American.” We had many Black people identify and embrace mother Africa. We became “happy to be nappy” and grew what was originally called the “African-bush” hairstyle that was later abbreviated to “Afro.”

I can remember that I disliked being described as an Afro-American. I would let people know that an Afro is a hairstyle, not a group of people. Later, we began wearing dashikis and embraced celebrations like Kwanzaa. We seem to have always spoken in slang. These are the things that change with each generation.

Choice and circumstances have always influenced Black culture. El-Kati said that American culture is Black culture “warmed over.” In every society where there are different groups of people, this diversity creates cross-cultural influences.

The panel agreed that culture is passed on through institutions like the church. Wesley McGee believes that Black people could raise our economic status through the church with a comprehensive initiative. In particular, he responded to the moderator’s question of how we can create an institution like our own African American Cultural Museum here in Minnesota. McGee is convinced that it can happen here if every Black church in Minnesota pools its resources to develop a financial institution.

Ezra Hyland believes that we should decide what we consciously pass on to our children. El-Kati believes that culture consciousness is a matter of all of us just paying attention: “It’s right up under our nose,” he said.

El-Kati concluded by stating that the questions of Black culture should be posed in a workshop format because it’s just too heavy. I couldn’t agree with him more.

In our culture as in many societies, according to El-Kati, artists are the free spirits. They are in the best position to lead. He said there is a difference between an artist and a performer. An artist has vision with a message that is usually scary to the establishment, especially when it speaks truth to power and makes demands for change. Maybe that explains why they killed poets long ago.

If you missed the Soul on Ice art exhibit and the two panel discussions, forgive yourself and show up next time.

Jimmy Stroud welcomes reader responses to